Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Where a guy can be a guy

So anyways, last night, late, late at night, when all good children are asleep and mine are up bugging me, I decided to swim against the tide and catch some zz's.

Then it starts. The wife, whom I love dearly, asks me about an area rug she wants to buy. "Which one do you like?" she asks as I try to smother myself with a series of pillows and small appliances. So I look over. It looks like a rug.

Thing is, we already have a rug. We have 2 rugs! We just bought a rug to replace a rug we already have and now she wants my opinion about another rug. Let's break this down, shall we.

1. We already have a rug
2. We just bought another rug
3. It is a rug.
4. I step on rugs, dump stuff on rugs and otherwise treat them like rugs.
5. I am a guy.

I'd like to dwell on number 5 for a second. I know that I'm not the most masculine guy around, but I have retained my absolute lack of interest in home decoration. The world knows this. I have made it clear that my idea of a shelf or a wall unit is a board and 2 concrete blocks. And my idea of a table is a shelf or a wall unit. I think that walls and ceilings should be white and dishes, paper. OK, plastic for fancy guests. So back to the list.

6. It was late at night.
7. I was tired.
8. All rugs look the same to me.
9. My opinion as a man is often ignored.

Lather, rinse. Repeat.

So the bottom line is that the wife is asking someone who doesn't care or have an opinion, his opinion (which she won't really listen to) on a piece of home decoration that we don't need, and which I will walk all over, all when I should be asleep.

To sleep, perchance to dream.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

What do you know?

My children are smart in ways that can’t be tested by multiple choice questions and it scares the hell out of me. I’m not worried because they know more text language or because they have been exposed to more episodes of television shows via their computers than through the TV set. I’m not worried because they are aware of more hatred and violence, sexuality and drug use than I was at their age. I’m worried because of balloon animals.

My elder daughter, just becoming comfortable as an angry teenager, was helping out with my younger daughter’s birthday party. We went shopping for party supplies and she insisted that we buy the long, skinny balloons and the pump so that she could make hats and giraffes for the younger guests. I humored her, figuring that she saw someone on Top Chef or Cops making balloon animals and convinced herself that she could do the same. I bought the balloons convinced that this 7 dollar object lesson would serve everyone well. The party began as scheduled. Cake, pizza, candles, and manicures and makeup treatments. And balloon animals – real honest to goodness balloon animals. I have no idea when and where she learned to do this but it struck me (and I’m sure parents everywhere have faced this same paradox) that this is a child who can’t remember her math lessons from day to day and who struggles in science and social studies. My other child is much the same; she can reel off lyrics galore and retell an entire movie’s plot line without taking a breath, but she can’t spell.

The children, it appears, are not idiots. Anyone who knows them sees how they have sharp wits and make insightful comments. But when those tests come around, they both flounder. As an educator, I fear that my children will fail at the conventional testing schema and will be pounded down by the system which values numbers and data over whatever it is my kids seem to have. I worry about high school (can my kids handle the volume of work when they struggle with the elementary and middle school demands?). I worry about college admissions (SAT’s can’t measure what my children have to offer). I worry about their finding a direction in life. I worry. Now, I know that as a father, it is my job to worry and that I’m not going through anything particularly unique. But I see as a teacher that students have to be able to take tests, memorize formulae and somehow develop an understanding of something more practical and somehow elusive than balloon animals.

I’m not sure how we can check for “knowledge” and sometimes I’m not even sure what knowledge is. Does it somehow have something to do with geometry, chemistry and history? Sure. Does it have something to do with coping skills, working well under pressure and memorization? Yup. Is it somehow bigger than all of those things and, in a very important sense, immeasurable? Absolutely. Find me someone who can remember, understand, and DO and I’ll show you a person who has something to contribute to the world, no matter his standardized test scores.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Semi serious thoughts about language learning

I remember when I was a boy in Jewish Day school. While I loathed all homework, I recall reserving a special place in my bowels for Hebrew homework. I guess part of that had to do with the teachers and maybe part had to do with what we now call "trouble with languages." I was never really sure. But I have been spending some serious minutes wrestling with the idea of why it is tough to learn a language. Some has to do with the various physiological and chemical processes of the brain which I will never fully understand. Or at all.

But I was sitting having lunch with Muzzy, the poorly animated multilingual bear who tortures my mind with the phrase "bonjour, je sui Muzzy" over and over and he mentioned something that resonated. He talked about small children learning language in a natural way, the way they learn their first language.

Now that's nothing new. Everyone knows that smaller children pick up a second or third language easier than adults. We also all know that learning a language by immersion and use, the way we learn our first language, is most natural (my friend Rosy T. Stone taught me that). So what was the a-ha moment?

It has to do with the gap. It's always about the gap.

Why did I get frustrated by writing Hebrew essays? Because I didn't get frustrated by writing English essays! It is all clear to me now. Learning 2 languages at the same time is easier because your ability to express yourself grows in parallel and there is no gap. The more the gap widens between the ability to communicate expressively in one and the other, the larger the frustration index. If I can say "the breathtaking explosion of colors in last night's sunset left me awe struck" in English, but only have the vocabulary to say "the sun was nice" in Hebrew, I will dread trying to write in Hebrew. The wider that gap (either because of a predilection for native expression at a young age, or a significant number of years of practice at native language before the introduction of another language) the less likely the success for language learning, unless someone happens to be wired in a way which allows for language acquisition.

So if you start early when there is no difference between the complexity of vocabulary in the two languages, or any real depth to the thoughts which prompt the writing, languages can be acquired naturally. The vocabulary in the 2 languages grows in the same fashion and both (and either) develop as the innate need to express grows. I wonder two things:

1. could this be used to explain frustration in other fields -- gaps between an understanding and a discipline-based vocabulary or mode of understanding make for difficulty

2. could this be tested by tracing language expression/acquisition among young learners who acquire native language expression skills at different paces? Theoretically, the ones who develop as (in my case) English writers more slowly should have less trouble (paradoxically) acquiring Hebrew at the same rate. Stronger English students should see the gap with vocabulary and expression in Hebrew unless instruction is ramped up to keep pace with English development (the slower the class, the harder?) How very counter-intuitive.

Linguistics/Sociology/Psychology students, you have your orders.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A TV show idea

All you TV execs, listen up. This is the idea of a lifetime, and I don't mean Lifetime TV because no one meets a mysterious stranger. If you want to start a TV show which is a guaranteed hit, this is it.

Broadcast a football game, but instead of having proper sports commentators, have 3 or 4 regular guys watch the game and let the viewers watch the game with them. While they should make sure to punctuate their comments with actual play by play and explanation of stuff but wouldn't it be great if you could watch "along with" some guys who are regular people. Let them make small talk. Let them eat food and talk about their jobs and families. Let them drink beer and burp and enjoy the emotional roller coaster that is football. Let them get angry and overjoyed when it is called for. Enough of the sterile professionals -- let's turn football watching into a reality show. You want story arcs? Any guy has, over the course of a season, enough mini crises and dramas that viewers can empathize with. Make football watching real.

That's my idea. I think it is brilliant. If you don't you are clearly wrong. If I see this idea transformed into a TV show, I will sue everybody until someone admits publicly that it was my idea and gives me something other than angina. So there.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

It's all I can do

I have been thinking recently about what I can do and also what I can't. Sadly the list for the latter is a big more sizable unless I start adding the little things on to the "can do" list, you know, like "breathe." Somehow that doesn't seem to balance out that I can't crochet. I know...only one of those is life sustaining, but it would be really neat to crochet.

I was sitting with a teacher recently and she was trying to teach me how to use a sewing machine. I have tried over the years to master the sewing machine. It is my Everest, except that you can sew with it. The problem I have is that i can't visualize how and why it works. The needle pushes thread through a hole and then comes up from the same hole. So why doesn't it pull the thread right back out? The teacher explained that it had to do with their being a lower thread which somehow gets pulled up. But how does it get pulled up, I asked? By the end of the lesson, she had successfully forgotten how to sew. My work there was done so I moved on to befuddle others.

The thing is, I really need to understand how something works to be able to work it sometimes. Not always. The internal combustion engine is only somewhat clear to me but I drive. I also have to be able to visualize myself doing something. If I can't picture myself doing it, I know it will never happen. I know that this smacks of self-defeatism and that it bespeaks a lack of imagination but I have found it to be a very good indicator of my success at something. I see myself working through it and I know I can do it, even if not well. Maybe this all points to why my list of "things I can do" is so short. Now, if that was all, then I could just go to bed comfortable in the knowledge of my own shortcomings. But that's not why I asked you all here this evening.

This morning, at around 10:30, I was walking through work and I burped. Not one of those little "pop" burps, and not one that I had to work at. And not one which I could foresee as a result of recent swallowing. This was a full tilt belch which just appeared out of NOWHERE.

[note: In my capacity as a male, I am bound by law to make some sort of gratuitous comment like "and sadly, no one was there to appreciate it"]

I can't figure out why I burped. I'm sure there was some physiological reason as to "how" so save me your medical jargon; I said I don't know "why." I just didn't realize that I ever had the capacity to burp spontaneously with such force, depth and character. If I could just take that skill and bottle it, I'm sure it wouldn't smell good and I'm not sure I could use it to teach myself to use a sewing machine.